The differences remaining between the Bush administration and Congress in the 2007 farm bill could be worked out within the next few weeks, predicts Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer.

“The farm bill now on the table has a lot to offer,” Schafer said. “It moves us forward in conservation, nutrition, research, specialty crops, and renewable energy. I’m continually optimistic that within the next few weeks we’ll be able to craft a bill that will be workable.”

Speaking to wildlife and natural resources enthusiasts in Phoenix, Ariz. on March 26, Schafer said the Bush administration and Congress have placed numerous ideas on the table during the 2007 farm bill development process. The original USDA farm bill plan supported $4.5 billion in increased spending over the baseline recommendation (the amount if the current law was extended with no changes).

The department has elevated its support to the $10 billion level. Initial Senate and House versions ranged from $15-27 billion, Schafer said.

“We’ve outlined the framework to get us to the $10 billion level in increased spending over baseline which is where the House and Senate seem to be converging,” Schafer said. “We have said new spending must be accompanied by real reforms in farm policy.”

Congress has extended the current 2002 farm law until April 18. Schafer voiced clear opposition to an additional extension — vowing the administration’s commitment to work with Congress to iron out a “forward-looking farm bill” that improves the current law.

“Producers need a firm idea of what farm policy is going to be to make planting and financial decisions and commitments,” Schafer said. “The continued uncertainty isn’t helping anyone. Leaving the old bill on the table under an extension or two is not good policy for this country.”

The USDA’s goal is delivering a farm bill to President Bush that achieves real reforms in farm policy, strengthens the safety net for producers, and keeps the door open to continued growth in trade without imposing new taxes, the secretary said.

“The bill that meets that criteria is one that President Bush will be proud to sign into law this year,” Schafer said.

Schafer delivered his remarks to the 73rd North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference. He said his acceptance of the USDA’s top post almost two months ago was partly based on the agency’s commitment to conservation.

Schafer lauded the USDA’s conservation reserve enhancement and conservation reserve programs, both administered by the agency’s Farm Service Agency, plus the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and U.S. Forest Service. He called the 193 million acres under Forest Service management “one of our nation’s greatest treasures.”

Continued conservation funding is an integral provision in the 2007 farm proposals. The USDA plan includes $7.8 billion in new spending on conservation, the largest increase in the entire farm bill, Schafer noted. The House and Senate versions also include substantial conservation increases.

The ag secretary commended the House and Senate for including a biomass reserve program in its farm bill packages to encourage farmers to begin cultivating sustainable energy crops for conversion later into cellulosic fuels.

e-mail: cblake@farmpress.com